20 Top Leg Exercises For Women: Home & Gym
An effective workout program targets all areas of the body, ensuring you work all of your muscles! When you train your legs, you want to include exercises that strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, calves and quadriceps.
Your legs contain some of the largest muscles in the body, and they literally support you every day during most of your activities. Strengthening your legs plays a role in most fitness goals — whether you are a runner, you lift weights or you love HIIT training!
- Why do leg exercises?
- Benefits of doing leg exercises
- Leg activation exercises
- Bodyweight leg exercises
- Free weight leg exercises
- Machine exercises
- Recovery leg exercises
- How to progressively strengthen your legs
Why do leg exercises?
Your legs are used in many everyday movements, as well as several powerful compound gym exercises. For anyone looking to increase their overall strength and fitness, doing leg exercises is highly recommended!
To maximise the results of your training, you need to train the large muscles of the legs, along with the rest of your body.
Lower body exercises are also one of the easiest ways to get your heart rate up, particularly when performed at higher intensities. This can be a great way to mix up your training and workout in different heart rate zones.
If you find that you sit a lot during the day, training your legs is a great way to activate the muscles that are inactive when sitting. Training your legs can be beneficial for your overall goals as they make up the largest muscle groups in your body.
Benefits of doing leg exercises
Leg exercises can help you to achieve a range of fitness goals, from increasing your metabolism to building muscle and burning fat.
Strengthening your lower body can build muscle and help to improve performance when running, jumping, twisting or kicking. When your lower body is strong you are also more resilient to injury.
If one of your goals is to build muscle, training your legs can also increase the production of the hormones that promote building lean muscle mass.
Training the large muscles of the legs at higher intensities can trigger the EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) effect, this is sometimes referred to as the ‘afterburn effect’. After you finish your workout, your body continues to burn energy at a higher rate than your resting metabolic rate.
Most leg exercises when performed correctly also engage and strengthen your core. A strong core is important in all aspects of life and is very beneficial for performing well in the gym as well as many other physical activities. Strengthening the glutes, hip flexors and core can also help to prevent lower back pain.
Best leg exercises
As with any strength workout, you need to start with a warm-up and spend time activating the muscles you will work out.
Activate your leg muscles
Before you start your workout, leg activation exercises help to trigger your mind/muscle connection and ensure all the targeted muscle fibres are firing in preparation for the main body of the workout!
Clams activate your gluteus medius. The clam variation demonstrated here by Stephanie Sanzo also engages your core, stabilising your body during the movement.
This is a great exercise to do before any lower body exercises, including heavy lifts like deadlifts or squats.
This exercise helps to improve hip stability, strengthen the hip abductors and deep muscles of the pelvis and improve knee and ankle stability. You can do this exercise before lifting or before running to switch on the important leg stabilising muscles.
Glute bridges activate your hamstrings and glutes. This is a good exercise to do to switch on these muscles before squats or deadlifts to activate the muscles around the hips.
Foam rolling helps to increase blood flow to the muscles and loosen connective tissue around muscle fibres to encourage smooth movement during exercise.
Foam rolling is beneficial before a workout - you can foam roll your glutes, calves and the sides of your legs to prepare for your workout.
Once you’ve activated your legs, you’re ready to start a leg workout!
Bodyweight leg exercises
Here are a few key bodyweight exercises that target all of the muscles in your legs:
Hamstring curl (fitball)
These hamstring curls will challenge your balance and core while targeting your hamstrings.
Squats work the muscles in your legs, especially the glutes, quads and hamstrings, as well as engaging your core. Doing squats can help you to build stability for jumping exercises and can also help to improve balance.
This is a variation on a static lunge exercise that you can do if you have more space. Walking lunges strengthen the leg muscles, core and hips. Walking lunges can help to loosen the hip flexors which get tight when sitting and also activates the glutes specifically.
You can do this exercise using a step, a bench or any other stable elevated surface! Box jumps target the fast-twitch muscle fibres in your calves, hamstrings, quads and glutes.
Free weight leg exercises
Do these exercises if you have weights at home or access to free weights at the gym. You can use dumbbells or kettlebells to load these exercises.
Single leg Romanian deadlift
This exercise targets your glutes and hamstrings and helps to improve your balance. Unilateral exercises like this one can help to improve neuromuscular control and reduce any imbalances between your left and right sides.
This exercise builds total-body strength, targeting the backs of your legs as well as your core strength and stability.
Performing a barbell deadlift in the ‘sumo’ stance with your legs positioned wide apart can allow you to lift a heavier weight than with your feet at hip-width as you progress with your training.
Squats are a compound movement that work your whole body — this makes them a very effective exercise for a variety of fitness goals. To increase the difficulty, slow down the downward part of the movement. This increases ‘time under tension’, increasing muscle activation and the amount of energy burned.
Calf raises help to increase ankle strength and stability and can help to prepare your body for plyometric exercises like box jumps. Calf raises are most effective when done slowly — try to hold at the top of the movement for one or two seconds!
Machine leg exercises
Here are some exercises you can do using the machines at the gym to strengthen your legs. Using machines can help you to isolate and train specific muscles in your lower body, and to build power and speed safely.
This squat variation keeps your upper back and hips in a stable position, reducing the reliance on core strength compared to a barbell squat. Your hips are in a fixed position and this means that more of the load is taken by the quads.
The leg press targets your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves. Many gyms have a 45-degree leg press like the one shown, as well as a horizontal leg press — you can use either. In the video above, Chontel Duncan demonstrates the 45-degree leg press.
This exercise targets the quadriceps, using the lever action of the leg to load the thigh muscle. It’s an effective exercise for building lower body strength and muscle definition.
This isolation exercise targets the hamstrings but also engages the calf muscles, glutes, quads and shins. Increasing the strength and flexibility of your hamstrings can help with balance and lower body strength.
Doing hamstring exercises helps to build balanced, strong legs. Most leg exercises will work more than one muscle, so include a variety of leg exercises to target the whole leg.
Recovery leg exercises
After completing your leg workout, you can speed up your muscle recovery by taking the time to cool down. Use static stretches like these after your workout to improve flexibility and range of motion.
Hip flexor and quad stretch
This stretch helps to release tight quads and stretches your hip flexors. You can intensify the stretch by contracting your glute muscle — aim to hold the stretch for 30 seconds during your cool down.
This stretch releases tight hamstrings and also stretches your calves. It’s a good stretch to use during an active recovery session or when you can lie down to stretch. You can intensify the stretch by looping a towel or a yoga strap around your foot and holding it.
Hamstring and calves stretch
You can do this stretch after a walk or run, without needing to lie on the ground! This is great if you are outdoors. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds on each side. Raising your toes towards your shins will intensify the stretch in the calf muscle.
Foam rolling - TFL
It’s hard to stretch the outside of the leg, but you can loosen the area using a foam roller. In this video, Kelsey Wells demonstrates foam rolling of the tensor fasciae latae, sometimes referred to as the ‘TFL’. This area can be quite tight, so you might opt for a soft foam roller to start with.
There are many more stretches for your glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves that you can include in your cool down. Choose stretches that target the muscle groups used in your workout.
Use these exercises to strengthen your legs
If you find that your workouts have hit a plateau, trying some new leg exercises, changing your intensity, or focusing a bit more on movement and recovery for a week might just help you get through it!
Whether you use bodyweight exercises at home or train your legs in the gym, start with simpler movements and increase the complexity and intensity as you gain confidence and strength.
You might start by doing bodyweight squats and calf raises and build up to more intense plyometric exercises or lifting weights.
If you aren’t sure how to progress towards your leg training goals, following a SWEAT program will guide you.
Do you have a favourite leg exercise? Let us know in the comments below!
* Results may vary. Strict adherence to the nutrition and exercise guide are required for best results.